Saving A Backlit Shot

Quick Fix: Saving A Backlit ShotOne of the most challenging situations for a photographer is getting a good exposure of a subject when shooting into the sun. That’s because the contrast range between the background and the backlit subject is usually too great for a good exposure of both the background and the subject.

Check out this picture of an eagle that I recently photographed in Mongolia. Even with moderate backlighting, you can still see details in the bird’s face and body. How was that possible? Easy! I used Photoshop Elements to reveal the details in the shaded areas. Following is my step-by-step process for this quick fix.

Quick Fix: Saving A Backlit ShotKeep in mind that you can use these techniques to save and enhance one of your photographs in which the subject—an animal or even a person-is overly backlit.

Before we get going, here’s my original photograph. The exposure, taken as a quick grab shot with my camera set to the Av mode, is for the birds, so to speak.

Quick Fix: Saving A Backlit ShotSTEP ONE The first step was to open up the shadows. I went to Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Shadows/Highlights and moved the Shadows slider to reveal the feathers that were shaded by the backlighting. I could have opened up the shadows more, but doing so would have let digital noise creep in, actually making those areas look worse. Therefore, it’s important to remember that you can only open up shadow areas to a degree.

Quick Fix: Saving A Backlit ShotSTEP TWO Opening up the shadows overexposed the bird’s beak in the image. To remedy that problem, I used the Burn tool on the Toolbar to darken the beak.

Quick Fix: Saving A Backlit ShotSTEP THREE Due to the backlighting, the bird’s eyes were too dark. In my animal (and people) pictures, I like to see the subject’s eyes. To reveal the eyes, I first went to the Options bar at the top of my screen and clicked on the Add to selection icon (because I wanted to select the two eyes). You can also add to a selection by pressing down the Shift key after you make your first selection.

Quick Fix: Saving A Backlit ShotSTEP FOUR Next, I selected the Elliptical Marquee tool on the Toolbar and selected both of the bird’s eyes.

Quick Fix: Saving A Backlit ShotSTEP FIVE To brighten only the eyes (the selected areas), I went to Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Levels and moved the Highlight slider to just inside the “mountain” in the histogram.

Quick Fix: Saving A Backlit ShotSTEP SIX At this point, the eyes still looked a bit flat. While they were still selected, I went to Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Brightness/Contrast and boosted the contrast just a bit. My eyes enhancements were done. I went to Select > Deselect to deselect those areas of my image.

Quick Fix: Saving A Backlit ShotSTEP SEVEN I like pictures that pop with color. For more vibrant colors, I went to Enhance > Adjust Color > Adjust Hue/Saturation and slightly increased the saturation of the entire image.

Quick Fix: Saving A Backlit ShotSTEP EIGHT Here’s the result of all those easy enhancements.

Quick Fix: Saving A Backlit ShotSTEP NINE To dress up my shot, I applied one of the Brush frames in onOne Software’s PhotoFrame Pro 3. My quick fix was complete!

Quick Fix: Saving A Backlit ShotSTEP TEN Of course, always start with the best possible image. In backlit situations, it’s advisable to use a flash to lighten up the subject or to use a reflector to bounce light onto the subject. Here’s a shot of an African eagle owl I photographed in upstate New York. I used a flash to fill in the shadow and brighten the bird’s eyes and face. Knowing I had a good in-camera exposure, I knew I’d need less “fix” time in my digital darkroom and, therefore, have more time to do what I like doing: taking pictures outdoors!

So, again, strive for the best possible in-camera images.

Rick Sammon’s recent books include Idea to Image, Rick Sammon’s Complete Guide to Digital Photography 2.0, Rick Sammon’s Travel and Nature Photography and Rick Sammon’s Digital Imaging Workshops. He has produced a DVD for Photoshop Elements users, 3-Minute Digital Makeovers, and DVDs for Phot
oshop CS users, Awaken the Artist Within, Close Encounters with Camera Raw
and Photoshop CS2 for the Outdoor and Travel Photographer. Visit

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